Khan Academy: Zero Meaning Plus Zero Motivation Equals Zero Learning

I fear that we’ve been seduced by the soothing voice and colorful telestrator technology at the highly popular Khan Academy website, which features thousands of videos on all topics math, science, economics, and others. I admit I do not understand the recent obsession with site, which has burst onto the educational and public scene over the past year or so, heralded as a great resource for all.

Before I get to the criticism, here are some things I do like:

  • It’s VERY comprehensive; name nearly any topic and it’s covered.
  • Sal has a nice voice.
  • The explanations of concepts are VERY clear, though they lack much context for meaningful learning, which is where my criticism begins.


While a few of the sites videos are presented in a contemporary and meaningful context, most of the site’s videos lack contextual meaning to most young people. Take the math videos for example; a quick dive in and you find a bunch of letters, numbers, and lines on a board that lack context and meaning. Folks, you are looking at the same explanations that were made to you once upon a time in your high school algebra class, few if any of which you actually remember! If you didn’t RETAIN the information back then, why would you expect to retain it now? Because the lines, numbers, and letters are IN COLOR?

Along with the promotion of this resource I have also seen the concept of the “flipped classroom” presented. Okay, there’s some potential here. But unless you have a capable teacher that is able to make the in-class part of the learning motivating and meaningful to their students, Sal will likely have wasted his time.

I see that this might be a great resource for SOME teachers and SOME students, particularly those that are “self-motivated” high achievers.  But, this is not for ALL students, and ALL is where it’s at in terms of where we need to focus our attention. Unfortunately, this resource will best serve the students that were already best served by great teachers and supportive families. This will do very little if anything to help the students and families that remain in the most need of help. It is highly unlikely that this itself will change things as much as the many lauding it say it will. In fact, it may cause a deeper divide rather than be a great equalizer.

There is little inherently meaningful or motivating in any of the Khan videos that I have viewed, which to me says that there will be zero learning. I have seen many audiences of educators hear the mention of the academy shake their heads in agreement that this is such a wonderful resource. That scares me. No one I know in education is taking a critical look at this in light of what research tells us about contextual meaning and motivation as they relate to learning.

Students need to find meaning and motivation in their learning experiences and I fear they won’t find them at the Khan Academy.  Put the learning in context that means something to students. Let the students lead the way to the topics by selecting their own project work and we’ll be onto something in terms of motivation. Both are keys to educational success and to a student’s ingenuity.


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